The Judas Passion at St John’s Smith Square review ***

sally_beamish_288x257

Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment, Nicholas McGegan, Brenden Gunnell, Roderick Williams, Mary Bevan, Choir of the OAE

St John’s Smith Square, 25th September 2017

The Judas Passion is a new work commissioned by the OAE and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra San Francisco, and was composed by Sally Beamish with a libretto by David Harsent. Now I had not heard any of Ms Beamish’s works before, though she is an eminent modern British composer, but this felt like an “event”, so I decided that my presence lurking in the back was required. The convenience of an hour long piece starting at 7pm was also an attraction.

Now new Passions to match the heights reached by JS Bach are few on the ground. Commissions of liturgal works are perforce limited and few composers are likely to have the desire or the belief to engage in such an exercise. Which is a shame because when they do, as with Penderecki’s St Luke Passion or, better still, Part’s Passio, it can bring forth transcendent music. And this from a committed atheist.

The Judas Passion was doubly interesting because of the way librettist David Harsent (a poet who has written libretto’s for Sir Harrison Birtwhistle’s major operas) chose to set out the Passion story. It is told from Judas’s perspective and shows him not as the customary dastardly villain but as a man who is chosen, and forgiven, by Christ to act as he did. The simple, but very affecting libretto, explores this idea with single parts for Judas (American tenor Brendan Gunnell), Jesus (baritone Roderick WIlliams) and Mary Magdalene (soprano Mary Bevan) who acts as a sort of narrator. The disciples create the chorus as well as a part for an interchangeable God/Devil to emphasise the duality of Judas’s motives.

All round the singing was very fine, but I was particularly struck by Mary Bevan who lent a melancholy to her lines which was fitting. She is playing the lead in Coraline, Mark-Antony Turnage’s new opera, which is on my to see list. The score is terse which fits the drama and largely taken at a moderate pace with a couple of more energetic episodes. The tone is deliberately Baroque (with harpsichord and lute alongside strings, flutes, natural horns and occasional trumpets) with many canonic and fugal nods to JS Bach and a barrage of more or less interesting percussive effects. The singers were lightly choreographed by stage director Peter Thomson (with not a lot of stage to play with) which definitely heightened the performance for me.

I am not sure how the score would stand up as a recording or in a large concert hall. However, as a chamber “opera”, redolent of Britten’s Church Parables, with costume and movement, I think it would be extremely effective. Words, music and action together tell an involving story, with a bold perspective which draws on more than just the Biblical gospels. A true Passion I suppose.

Fretwork at the Wigmore Hall review ****

gothic-web-940x600

Fretwork (Asako Morikawa, Joanna Levine, Sam Stadlen, Emily Ashton, Richard Boothby)

Wigmore Hall, 18th September 2017

JS Bach – The Art of Fugue – Contrapunctus I-XI, XIV

Fretwork are one of those marvellous groups of dedicated adventurers who have brought Early, Renaissance and Baroque music back to life. There was a time when vast swathes of this music was forgotten, unperformed and left to rot. But just as the Modern swept away all that dreadful artistic junk from the Late C18 and C19 (Western art music was a bit more fortunate thanks to Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven) so an ever increasing band of scholars and, from the middle of the last century, performers (first amateur and then professional), revived and extended our knowledge of this music. And at the same time the beat came back.

In fact it seems to me that there are two types of Western classical music listener: those who revel in the bombastic pretensions of the Romantics , where a wall is erected between listener and performers, and those of us who prefer to get our pleasures from “simpler” structures, music with discernible rhythm and pulse.

We are now probably three generations into the rise of Early Music and “period performance”, which has a healthy following in the concert hall and in recordings. All this love and scholarship has also changed the way music is performed and understood across the “classical” spectrum. In contrast to jazz, blues and modern “popular” music, composition and performance are separated in “classical” music. Context and history matter. The how, what, why and when of performance and composition matter. The renaissance of the musical Renaissance has generated a vital third strand in “classical” music, alongside the veneration of the sacred Romantic texts performed by “gifted” performers and the challenge to the layman of “in yer face” contemporary classical.

So thanks to all those who devote their education and lives to bringing this joy and passing it on to the next generation, rather than selling their skills to an investment bank. And to those composers who are writing for these ensembles.

Fretwork is a viol consort founded in 1985 and, as I understand it, only Richard Boothby remains of the original line-up. Their focus is normally on music of a somewhat earlier vintage than JSB (though they will and do extend the viol sound into unexpected places). Indeed JSB didn’t stop tinkering with the Art of Fugue until just before he departed this world. For those that don’t know it, JSB takes a fairly straightforward (but eminently adaptable) theme in D Minor and then sets off counterpointing the bejesus out of it. Fugue, contrapunctus, counterpoint – it all means the same thing. Take the tune in one place, then get everyone else to pick it up whilst messing around with it, then mesh it all together into a satisfying whole. For some Bach’s music is incredibly fiddly, like the architecture of the High Baroque which leaves me cold. But, whilst I hear the fiddly, I also hear the rhythmic whole. And I think lots of other people do. Simple and complex simultaneously. That’s the genius.

Now the Art of Fugue can be played in any number of ways by any number of instruments (though a single harpsichord I gather is the most likely inspiration). Clever old JSB. Never seen or heard modern strings or a modern piano but wrote perfectly for them. By the time it was written the viol was on the way out superseded by the precursors of the stringed family we see today. So it is unlikely the old fella would have expected it to be played by this combination. Flat backs, sloped shoulders, different shaped holes, more strings, different bowing techniques and, importantly frets (hence the band’s name), all conjure up a very different sound-world to a modern string quartet say.

I loved it. Turns out this is a revelatory way to follow all the counterpoint. The viols create alternatively 3 or 4, and occasionally 5 lines, which can all be followed but without detracting from the overall architecture. Whilst maybe less transcendent than a single keyboard version, (played say by Glen Gould, grunts and all), it was probably superior to the string quartet interpretations I have heard. Best of all was the final unfinished fugue, No XIV, with its musical BACH signature. There is a lot of debate apparently around why the old boy didn’t finish it (he started it well before the onset of blindness and anyway could have had an assistant complete it). So usually once the three themes that make it up, including the BACH theme, are introduced and developed it just stops and trails off as written. Here Mr Boothby has, with the ideas of a clearly very bright scholar, finished it off. Whilst I have no idea of the theory that backs it up it made for a very satisfactory ending to an excellent recital.

Fretwork. Check ’em out.

Britten Sinfonia at Milton Court review *****

helen20grime20option202_0

Britten Sinfonia, Helen Grime

This is Rattle, Milton Court Hall, 20th September 2017

  • Purcell – Fantasia Upon One Note
  • Oliver Knussen, George Benjamin, Colin Matthews – A Purcell Garland
  • Helen Grime – Into the Faded Air
  • Oliver Knussen – Cantata
  • Helen Grime – A Cold Spring
  • Thomas Ades – Court Studies from “The Tempest”
  • Benjamin Britten – Sinfonietta
  • Igor Stravinsky – Dumbarton Oaks Concerto

Composer Helen Grime must be in seventh heaven having been chosen by Sir Simon Rattle to curate this concert and to open his first concert as Music Director of the LSO with her Fanfare. I had not heard any of her works before but on the strength of these two pieces, particularly the string sextet, Into the Faded Air, Sir Simon’s faith in her is more than justified. The other curators, Sir Harrison Birtwhistle, Oliver Knussen and Thomas Ades, drew their programmes from a similar creative wellspring, though Sir Harrison’s was suitably idiosyncratic, but Ms Grime’s offering held the most interest for me. The four composers span the decades of contemporary British classical music and show clear influences, one upon another. I note Helen Grime is also the resident composer at the Wigmore Hall.

The Purcell is, unsurprisingly, an imaginative piece, with one of the 5 parts held in middle C throughout (hello Terry Riley), allegedly so that Charles II could join in. A Purcell Garland was commissioned by the Aldeburgh Festival in 1995 for his tercentenary, with three British masters arranging and invigorating Purcell fantasias for a mixed chamber group. Oliver Knussen’s fantasia directly echoes Purcell’s as the note playfully shifts around the ensemble, George Benjamin’s piece uses a celeste alongside clarinet and the two strings to create haunting textures and Colin Matthews takes an unfinished fantasia and extends it, mixing modern and baroque to great effect (this was my favourite sequence, Mr Matthews being especially adept with this instrumental combination).

We then had Helen Grime’s string sextet Into the Faded Air from 2007, made up of a short pair of opposing trios in the first movement, followed by a slow viola duet, a spiky, pizzicato driven third movement and a mournful chorale to conclude. Shades of Stravinsky certainly and Bartok for me. I really liked this piece.

I was less persuaded by Knussen’s “cantata” for solo oboe which has ten very short linked episodes searching for the high C resolution. Helen Grime’s A Cold Spring is another immediately appealing piece with a dance for a pair of clarinets, followed by an introspective horn “concerto”, and ending with a Stravinskian climax for the whole group. The Thomas Ades Studies take from material from his opera The Tempest and are scored for clarinet, violin, cello and piano. In just 8 minutes it sketches out the four shipwrecked aristos from the play and is brimful of energy and contrasts. Now I love Thomas Ades work as composer and performer and this was no exception.

Britten’s Sinfonietta for chamber orchestra from 1932 was his first numbered work, composed in just 3 weeks when he was a student at the RCM. I had forgotten just how clever this was – like a who’s who of composers from the previous three decades – but still recognisably his work. Whilst the first two movements have a pastoral, English feel about them to my ears, the final movement Tarantello bears the closest resemblance to Stravinsky. And Stravinsky’s “Dumbarton Oaks” Concerto in E-flat is where we ended. This was commissioned in 1939, just before Stravinsky fled to the US, for a certain Mrs Bliss, and blissful she must have been on receiving this. It takes Brandenburg 3 as a jumping off point and then frankly matches the genius of Bach. Igor Stravinsky. What a clever fellow. Still casting a long shadow over all art music today.

As usual the Britten Sinfonia, under their remarkable leader Jacqueline Shave, were on top form. They are utterly compelling under Thomas Ades in his ongoing Beethoven cycle (please try to see/hear this), but it is in contemporary music where they are without peers in this country. It is not easy to make this music immediately accessible, even to those of us laypeople that want to hear it, but the Britten Sinfonia do so effortlessly. Bravo.

Stravinsky from Rattle and the LSO at the Barbican review *****

orig_59ae8c22d00135-63398832

London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle

Barbican Hall, 24th September 2017

  • Igor Stravinsky – The Firebird (original ballet)
  • Igor Stravinsky – Petrushka (1947 version)
  • Igor Stravinsky – The Rite of Spring

So here is is. The second coming. Sir Simon Rattle kicks off his tenure at the helm of the LSO. I missed the opening concert of British composers (annoying) and the Damnation of Faust (no interest) but this was always going to be a must see so I booked as soon as it opened.

Now it has been perfectly possible to see Sir Simon in London with the LSO, (for example, a Mahler 6 and the Ligeti Grande Macabre earlier this year), and other bands, (a Haydn Seasons and the late Mozart symphonies both with the OAE stick in the memory), but this was the first opportunity to gauge what will be possible for orchestra and conductor to achieve now they have quality together.

So it was an expectant mood in the hall as the Scouse Gandalf took to the podium (no need for scores – it is all in his head), after a few words with a clearly pleased as punch Lord Mayor. And then all hell broke loose. This was simply breathtaking. For long periods I was sitting stock still (and I am a terrible fidgeter) either open-mouthed in astonishment or grinning to myself like the proverbial cat from Cheshire.

Now I like the boy Stravinsky. And the more I get to grips with his compositions the more pleasure (and intellectual stimulation) I get. But it is hard to beat these three ballet scores.

Sir Simon chose to deliver the complete Firebird ballet. This means there is more of the still late Romantic colouration and chromaticism before we get to the Kashchei mad disco bits which presage The Rite of Spring. This means the debt to mentor Rimsky-Korsakov and the stench of Imperial Russia (give ’em fairy tales instead of food) hangs heavy in the air. Tchaikovsky and the rest of the Five are also on show. As usual Sir Simon was not interested in galloping through the first half of the exotic first tableau, to make sure every ounce of orchestral magic was received and understood by the audience. Which meant that by the time we got to the stunning apotheosis we were begging for release. Oooh. You just knew Igor, after this first lucky break, was going to take this to the next level.

Which is what he did. For Petrushka we got the 1947 streamlining though this is the standard nowadays. Here we start to get the big repeated rhythms and motifs which are what took the world of Western classical music by the scruff of the neck and turned it into a new direction. The late C19 structure is sort of still visible but in a kind of ironic way. The thrust towards Modernism and the age of machines is starting to take over though with rapid changes of direction, repetitions, major keys piled up and loads of banging tunes. And at the centre was the LSO’s own pianist master, Philip Moore.

A well earned break and we got to Sir Simon’s Rite of Spring. What a racket. In a brilliant way. The orchestra throughout was using every available inch of the Barbican stage with 60 odd strings on show and more brass than Yorkshire. And in the giant rhythmic climaxes they all got a look in. My ears were pounding and I was at the back of the circle. Heaven knows what it must have been like for the captives at the front of the stage. I have heard some marvellous Rite of Springs, (in my view, I cannot vouch for the ear of the professional), but this topped the lot. You can see why everyone got so enervated at the first performance in 1913. I was tempted to jump out of my seat at the end of Dance of the Earth and yell “go on my son”.

Now the LSO is top notch. We know that. Best in the world. Maybe. Best in my world. Definitely. But I have never heard them sound like this. Under Valery Gergiev, sometimes with interpretations that seem to be dialled in a couple of hours before a concert, they looked, and sounded, frustrated. Not here. They were having a blast. I have never seen an orchestra looking so happy. Every single section sounded faultless to me bar a couple of overly-enthusiastic brass fanfares. Yet is was the woodwind which stood out. And when the strings where belting out as one, like some giant single instrument, or capturing a pianissimo so quiet time was suspended, it just felt good to be alive.

So all in all a genuinely memorable evening. I cannot wait for the next from this marriage made in musical heaven. Unfortunately a fair slice of Sir Simon’s standard repertoire is not entirely to my taste but there should be enough from the C20 and contemporary commissions and from Classical masters. Indeed in January he will take the LSO back to the Baroque in part (Handel and Rameau) alongside Mahler’s Ruckert Lieder (with the lady wife singing – his, not mine) and Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. There is also a very attractive C20 programme with Janacek, Carter, Berg’s Violin Concerto, with the marvellous Isabelle Faust, and Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra. And there is plenty of Mahler, as well as Tippet, Bernstein and Strauss for those attuned to that sort of thing. Bring it on.

London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall review ****

dmitri-shostakovich-1233767711-editorial-long-form-0

London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski, Alina Ibragimova (violin)

Prom 71, Royal Albert Hall, 6th September 2017

  • Igor Stravinsky – Funeral Song,
  • Igor Stravinsky – Song of the Volga Boatmen,
  • Sergei Prokofiev – Violin Concert No 1 in D Major
  • Benjamin Britten – Russian Funeral
  • Dmitri Shostakovich – Symphony No 11 in G Minor “the Year 1905”

What with one thing and another, but mostly my stupidity at missing the booking opening, I only made it to one RAH Prom this year and missed out on two or three that I really wanted to hear/see. Never mind BBC Radio 3 came to the rescue with their recordings. BTW I WILL PERSONALLY KICK SHIT OUT OF ANY POLITICIAN WHO HAS THE TEMERITY TO FUCK ABOUT WITH THE BBC. I can’t move quickly but I am a big lad so you don’t want to get in my way. Understood. Just joking. I think.

Moving swiftly on. The main reason for picking this Prom was the opportunity to hear the LPO with personal favourites Vladimir Jurowski (a man who seems to conduct with his shoulders and head as much as his hands and eyes, riveting from my choir perch), and the meticulous violinist Alina Ibragimova, having a crack at some hardcore C20 Russian repertoire. And specifically Shostakovich 11 which gets an outing now and then but not regularly enough to miss. Having said that I still can’t decide how much I like it.

Before the main event we had some early works from clever clogs Stravinsky. The score for Funeral Song, Op 5, was only recently rediscovered and is a memorial to teacher and mentor Rimsky-Korsakov. The latter’s influences are fairly clear, (we must thank N R-K for Stravinsky’s mastery of orchestral colours), but, for me,, the louder voice was Wagner, not a good thing to my ears. This was followed by Stravinsky’s arrangement of the Song of the Volga Boatmen, which is a rousing, if very short, ditty which served as the original Russian anthem post 1917 Revolution.

I don’t know if I will ever “get” Prokofiev. I have heard some convincing performances of his works recently, the Quintet and Martha Argerich playing the Piano Concerto No 3 (mind you I reckon Martha could leave you open mouthed in admiration playing Happy Birthday on the spoons). And the piano sonatas I remember seeing performed have been interesting. But there may be too many ideas in the music for me. My ears and brain crave repetition and structure. There is enough rhythm in Prokofiev but there is a lot of flitting about. So I may not be up to it. Still I will keep trying. This Violin Concerto created the same confusion for me. Ms Ibragimova puts line and detail into her performances and really convinces. There were passages of real interest, even when it all got a bit too lyrical, and there were such clever twists and one blinding fast passage, but once again it was just too “bitty”. Sorry. Moreover, whilst I was close enough to hear the violin clearly even with my ropey ears, I suspect the gallery punters might have been working a bit harder.

In contrast to Prokofiev Britten is dead easy for me to understand. Russian Funeral is the only piece he wrote for brass band and it is an open, Mahlerian march bookending a disquieting scherzo. The march is taken from a Russian funeral song (which appears again in the DSCH symphony), hence the title, and the whole thing reflects Britten’s anti-war stance. I loved it.

Now the main event. It is a heck of a slab. An unbroken hour, four movements, slow, faster, slow, fastish. It is based on four revolutionary songs and takes the events of the failed 1905 uprising. The programme is pretty clear, The Palace Square in winter as the revolutionaries march to petition the Tsar. The fighting starts, the Imperial Guard opens fire and the assembly is brutally quashed. We then mourn the thousand dead and finally look forward to when the proletariat will succeed in throwing off the yoke of their oppressors. Now there are some absolutely belting tunes in all of this, but it is a long, drawn out affair. This is one of the DSCH symphonies that drifts towards the cinematic which is fine except we have no pictures for the eyes so the ears get a bit of an overload. And the contrast between the icy despairing chords of the Adagios and the martial drumming of the Allegro movements is a bit overwrought. As ever with DSCH you can sometimes have too much of a good thing.

Having said that it certainly clears out the passages and conjures up an epic vision of the struggle. There isn’t very much of the sardonic or sarcastic audible here, or if there is, it is well hidden, so I can see why this went down a treat with the big boys in the Party when it was served up in 1957 as part of the 40 year celebrations. DSCH did make a few veiled comments pointing to what wad happened in 1956 in Hungary but it didn’t leap out. But then the old chap never did give much away. From the perspective of the centenary of the Revolution though it does feel a bit odd especially when you know what DSCH delvers when he nails it. Can’t fault the playing though and Mr Jurowski wisely gave as much room as was needed to the expansive phrases. No point rushing this edifice as it isn’t going to make much of a difference. And when needed he and the band turned it up to 11, indeed right at the end when the bells come in, we were treated to a 12 on the Tufnel scale.

When all is said and done, and despite the shortcomings, No 11 is still an extraordinary wall of sound and the LPO nailed it. Thanks lads and lasses.

 

 

 

Alexander Melnikov and the Latvian Radio Choir at Cadogan Hall review ****

lrk_janis_deinats

Alexander Melnikov (piano), Latvian Radio Choir, Sigvards Klava

Proms Chamber Music No 5, Cadogan Hall, 14th August 2017

  • Dimitri Shostakovich – Preludes and Fugues Op 87 – Nos 1, 2, 3, 4, 7. 8
  • Dimitri Shostakovich – Ten Poems on Texts by Revolutionary Poets, Op 88 – Nos 5,6,7,8,9

Previous posts will have revealed my passion for Shostakovich’s music despite, or maybe because of, its sometimes disturbing crassness. So what better way than this to spend a birthday. Off I toddled for this lunchtime chamber Prom of which there have been a few this year at Cadogan Hall. An excellent innovation. Oh, and before I get down to business, don’t worry birthday boy’s day turned more social thanks to a welcome surprise from the SO, BD and LD.

Now these pieces are interesting because of their chronology, in the middle of his oeuvre, but still in the uncertain (for DSCH) period before Stalin popped his clogs, and also because of their form. The Ten Poems are a capella for choir, though DSCH makes sure there are proper tunes to be heard, which is a form he used sparingly. He also produced some other weighty piano compositions, notably the Op 34 Preludes and the Sonata No 2 Op 61, but the rest of the piano works are more lightweight (though still interesting). The Op 87 Preludes and Fugues are a full blooded exploration of the piano’s range across 3 hours or so. The recorded version I have is by dedicatee Tatiana Nikolayeva and is an old favourite. Alexander Melnikov’s recording is judged by some as better so I was looking forward to this.

Since the Ten Poems on Texts by Revolutionary Poets are exactly that it is tricky to cast around for the usual DSCH subtext here. These poems are straight up and down descriptions of the suffering of the people at the hands of the Tsarist authorities at the time of the first failed 1905 Revolution. Similarly the structured format of the Preludes and Fugues also precludes too much navel gazing about the “meaning” of the works. So we can just concentrate on the sounds. Now I don’t know the Poem settings as well as I should but this seemed to me a very well crafted performance by the Latvian Radio Choir under director Sigvards Klava (who had been in town primarily to deliver a Rachmaninov Vespers the night before). The five settings on show only run to a few minutes each and the syllabical structures are very straightforward but the delivery was as crisp as you like and sung across the board with real fervour. The programme notes a similarity to Mussorgsky’s operatic choruses: I get it.

However Mr Melnikov was even more convincing. The six Preludes and Fugues he played were very convincing and performed with real authority. In particular those Fugues with fortissimo passages really struck home. I was dead impressed. I think this work is somewhere near the top of the best piano music ever written. I reckon Mr Melnikov agrees. Time to add his version to the collection.

Happy birthday to me then.

Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin at the Wigmore Hall review *****

50709-0-m114-510-akademie-fur-alte-musik-berlin-kristof-fischer

Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin, Isabelle Faust, Bernhard Forck

Wigmore Hall, 29th June 2017

  • JS Bach – Suite No 2 in A Minor BWV 1067a
  • JS Bach – Violin Concerto in E Major BWV 1042
  • JS Bach – Violin Concerto in A Minor BWV 1041
  • CPE Bach – String Symphony in B Minor Wq 182/5
  • JS Bach – Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor BWV 1043

I had never seen the Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin nor Isabelle Faust before but was aware of their reputations so I was really looking forward to this concert. Well I certainly wasn’t disappointed. This was thrilling stuff. I can safely say these were the best performances of Bach Violin Concertos that I have ever heard (mind you I haven’t heard that many live to be fair).

The opening suite set out the stall. The Akamus was founded in 1982 with many long standing members. It is also boasts a prolific performance schedule. This shared experience shows. The unanimity of the playing was astounding with the whole chamber ensemble moving as one, with every line of Bach’s music audible. A masterclass in amplitude if you like. The A Minor Suite is comprised of six dance movements preceded by an overture and was compelling from the off. There are only relatively brief periods when the solo violin line shines through but this was our introduction to Ms Faust’s ostensibly delicate, but remarkably convincing, playing. It is a mystery to me how someone who appears to barely stroke the strings with the bow creates such grand and convincing phrases.

In the subsequent JS Bach pieces,, the violin of Bernhard Forck was increasingly prominent, both as sympathetic leader, and and as support to Ms Faust. This really was Bach concerto musicianship of the highest order especially in the closing Double Concerto with its majestic fugal opening, sweet slow movement and finale with that three note repeated riff running through The link back to Vivaldi (ritornello is great for dummies like me – all the music I love is repetitive in some way) was highlighted, but the clarity of the playing made it easy to pick out the Bach innovations in each of the violin concertos. I haven’t heard better. 

The CPE Bach piece was new to me and was a fair way from the inoffensive galant style that I had thought was the hallmark of these String symphonies. Not sure I will go out of my way to explore these pieces further but this was more striking than I had anticipated.

I would love to hear more of this ensemble and soloist playing this repertoire. I am even prepared to forgive the couple of frightening perms and suspicious mullet sported by some of the gentleman on show. This will definitely figure in my annual top ten. How sad is that. I am 53. I am not holed up in a musty smelling bedroom. I should have grown out of making lists four decades ago.